Research in large practice

This guest-edited dossier from Architecture Australia addresses the state of research in large architecture practices in Australia, examining the scope, ambition and impact of research activities on the business and culture of practice. How can research secure and enlarge the architect’s influence?

In this Dossier, we examine some models and motivations for design research in large architectural practices. We reflect on what kind of research might be conceptually and practically possible within the vicissitudes of sizeable commercial practice, given its scale (and the opportunities that brings), but equally given its economic and other constraints.

Large architectural practices in Australia are often interested in research in order to increase their market share, develop new markets, position themselves as “thought leaders,” develop niche expertise and specialization, build their reputation, generally improve their practice (including culture, retention and staff development) and contribute to better design and built outcomes. Not all of these objectives have financial ends; some are also altruistic or seek to advance knowledge in the discipline. But it’s fair to say that many of them are squarely commercial – as we would expect. What then is the potential of such research to contribute to new insights and new knowledge for the world more broadly? What research should large architecture practices be doing and what are they currently doing?

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These were some of the questions we were considering when we came to edit this Dossier. We also had some specific objectives in mind. As academics, each leading architecture schools in different states, we wanted most urgently to refute the old and highly unproductive perception of a divergence between research in architectural practice and research in the academy.

At times this bifurcation has resulted in mutual exclusivity, not to say mutual bafflement; at other times it has manifested as a particularly vicious branch of the culture wars. Numerous efforts have been made to bridge the divide, both practically and conceptually, and many would agree that it serves precisely no-one to frame the two in oppositional terms – it benefits neither architects, nor the profession, nor academics, nor the institutions, nor the built environment, nor the public at large. Everyone loses when we see architectural practice research and scholarly research (or indeed the industry and the academy) as antagonists.

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In this we follow Jeremy Till, who writes, in his essay “Architectural Research: Three Myths and One Model”: “It is vital that neither academic or practice-based is privileged over the other as a superior form of research, and equally vital that neither is dismissed by the other for being irrelevant. (‘You are all out of touch with reality,’ says the practitioner. ‘You are muddied by the market and philistinism,’ says the academic.) There is an unnecessary antipathy of one camp to the other, which means that in the end the worth of research in developing a sustainable knowledge base is devalued.”1

So we wanted first of all to frame research in architecture as a continuum between practice and academic modes. If the relationship is a spectrum, rather than a binary, then it is possible for the ends to move closer together and that is what we are arguing for here.

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Our second objective with the Dossier is to point out that creating a truly integrated and mutually reinforcing research culture in architecture in Australia requires strong leadership – from practice, from the academy, but importantly also from institutional bodies. It seems an obvious oversight that there is no award for research in the Institute’s peer recognition and reward system. That which is awarded is that which is valued – surely we value the production and sharing of new knowledge more than the current state of affairs would indicate?

Thirdly and finally, we wanted to point out that there are good precedents and places where research in architecture is valued and institutionalized much more than it presently is in Australia. The UK, for example, has an important legacy of industry-focused research through the work of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), which is to some extent continued by the RIBA, including the 2014 reports “How Architects Use Research: Case Studies From Practice”2 and “Architects and Research- based Knowledge: A Literature Review.”3

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Internationally, some large architecture practices have developed audacious models for undertaking research and are looking at how research might expand possibilities for a more diverse mode of architectural practice. In this Dossier, Billie Faircloth reflects on her experience of research at Kieran Timberlake in the US, while Reinier de Graaf, co-founder of AMO (the research arm of OMA), is interviewed by Alex Brown. Murray Fraser describes various practice research initiatives in the UK and Europe, including his work as past chair of the Research and Innovation Group of the RIBA, while closer to home, Peter Raisbeck addresses Australian architects’ general lack of systematic engagement with R and D – particularly the “D,” development.

For us, the centrepiece of the Dossier emerged from two AA Roundtable discussions, with representatives from nine large Australian architecture practices, held in February at the offices of Architecture Media in Melbourne. These two long conversations were lively, sometimes heated and quite revealing. A discussion and summary of the two conversations is included in the Dossier.

One thing in particular became clear in those conversations. Architects – especially those in large commercial practice – are looking to research for evidence . They want it to build a convincing case that design matters, that individual design decisions matter, that both are worth investing in and that architects are crucial to the production and delivery of good design – at the level of buildings as well as cities, at the level of policy as well as built outcomes. What commercial architects need these days is proof , of the empirical, factual kind, not just to stare down the beancounters, but to out-count them. This calls for metric data – or even better, big data – that is free of the taint of aesthetics or taste or impulsivity or subjectivity or caprice.

One might point out the many major philosophical critiques of the concept of “ factual objectivity,” just as one might point out the current swirling mist of “alternative facts,” which calls into question just how factual some facts may be. Likewise, we could pause to consider the nature of a world that favours quantitative facts and figures over qualitative ideas and interpretations. Indeed, many of those in our roundtable discussions argued that even as they pursue empirical research, they don’t believe it necessarily delivers specific design solutions, given that every architect draws different conclusions and propositions even when using the same evidence. What they need from research is material to validate design ideas, even if those ideas may be based as much on imagination, expertise, judgement and experience as on data.

Of course, none of this is new. Architects have long been searching for something – anything – with which to validate their practice and fight back against the systematic devaluation and denigration of the profession. But what might be newish is that architects are increasingly looking to research – especially their own, homegrown research – to provide the proof they need, in the form they need it, at the moment it is required.

Here, the definition of research enshrined by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) proves unhelpful. For the ATO, “Core R&D activities are experimental activities whose outcome cannot be known or determined in advance on the basis of current knowledge, information or experience, but can only be determined by applying a systematic progression of work that is based on principles of established science; and proceeds from hypothesis to experiment, observation and evaluation, and leads to logical conclusions.”4 This highly scientistic model tends to discount most of the trial-and-error, sometimes ad hoc, frequently nonlinear experimentation of much architectural effort.

What’s more, the ATO does not consider activities concerned with the “design, production or performance of human artistic expressions” to be research.5 It’s a pity, since at the time of writing those enterprises that do meet the ATO’s definition can enjoy a refundable tax offset of between 38.5 and 43.5 percent under the Australian Government’s Research and Development Tax Incentive.6 Without access to it, architectural practices, and the creative industries more broadly, must find other ways to finance research. The overall effect is that we have markedly less and less-well-organized research than our cognate fields – a situation which perhaps has been getting worse. John Held, for example, has noted that Australia “really dropped the ball in the last 15 years … in terms of research about architects. There’s been no significant work done on the effect of documentation quality on construction costs for 17 years. It’s even longer since the CSIRO did research on fees.”7

The ATO definition is silent on the most important aspect of research, the value of its contribution to new knowledge. Some systematic searches, no matter how thorough and assiduous, just don’t produce new knowledge – or not new knowledge that is significant. The holy trinity of quality academic research is that its findings are original, comprehensive and significant, but just as we don’t always see these in academic contexts, they’re not always present in practice-based research, either.

Research needs to respond to a significant question and it needs to be shared. Sharing is not only so that the finding has longevity and uptake, but also so that others can review and ratify or reject it, expand on it and develop new research around it.

We believe that research takes place in, on and about architectural practice. This is a very common position in architecture, even if it is not shared by the ATO. But we don’t find value in the argument that everything architects do is research, a case that is often put forward on the basis that every building or proposal is unique and, therefore, embodies new knowledge. Many activities are routine and practical investigations of existing knowledge.

Richard Buday argues that architecture is unusual among other knowledge-industry practices in that it does not have formalized processes and methods for conducting research. This is “ a problem unknown in other disciplines that similarly cherish the creation, validation, and consumption of new thought.”8 Across the spectrum of the natural and social sciences and the humanities, Buday argues, “rigorous investigation is institutionalized,” but in architecture “research may be no more than background-gathering of site data, a building code analysis, or photographing neighboring buildings for context. For some architects, critical investigation begins and ends with ephemeral form and material studies. For others, research is simply a post-occupancy evaluation to be filled out, filed, and forgotten.”9

In architectural practice there is not the same demand for transparency and dissemination as there is in academia, where research discoveries are required to be shared, contested, ratified and reviewed. Indeed, sometimes quite the opposite occurs in practice – discoveries are held close. This presents us with a challenge. Secrecy and territorialism are the enemy of a flourishing, critical, innovative research culture, the one which would ideally be blooming across the whole of the industry and which we would like to see.

Such are the territories we wished to explore with this Dossier. But more than this, we are also interested in a more expansive, more radical, perhaps less instrumental and opportunistic view of research that goes beyond the immediate defence of a project or proposition to a more radical strengthening of the position of the architect.

With this Dossier we hope to bring to light some of the benefits of and obstacles to architectural practice research in our unique national context, and what opportunities might therefore exist to advocate for the profession’s involvement in research and to seed further partnerships between practices, and with academic researchers, to pursue common goals. We hope to spark ideas about ambitious research that enables architecture to contribute to the world, ahead of or in collaboration with other disciplines. Can research help us think outside the box and transform practice, while staying afloat? What are the big- picture opportunities for large architectural practice to collaborate with institutional bodies, and with teams of researchers, in disruptive or game-changing ways? These are not small questions and they are not neatly or entirely answered here. But we hope that this Dossier might be a small step forward in such crucial conversations.

1. Jeremy Till, “Architectural Research: Three Myths and One Model,” Collected Writings, 2007, jeremytill.net/architectural-research.

2. Callum Lee, Amy Nettley, Matthieu Prin and Paul Owens, “How Architects Use Research: Case Studies From Practice,” RIBA website, 2014, architecture.com/knowledge- and-resources/resources-landing-page/how-architects- use-research.

3. Ellen Collins, “Architects and Research-based Knowledge: A Literature Review,” RIBA website, February 2014, architecture.com/knowledge-and-resources/resources- landing-page/architects-and-research-based-knowledge.

4. “Eligible Activities,” Australian Taxation Office website, ato.gov.au/business/research-and-development-tax-incentive/eligibility/eligible-activities.

5. “Eligible Activities,” Australian Taxation Office website.

6. “R&D Tax Incentive,” Tax Talks website, taxtalks.com.au/ rd-tax-incentive.

7. John Held, “Research in Practice,” Association of Consulting Architects Australia, The Business of Architecture website, 14 March 2017, aca.org.au/article/ research-in-pratice.

8. Richard Buday, “The Confused and Impoverished State of Architectural Research,” Common Edge website, 27 July 2017, commonedge.org/the-confused-and-impoverished-state-of-architectural-research.

9. Richard Buday, “The Confused and Impoverished State of Architectural Research.”

Source

Discourse

Published online: 18 Mar 2019
Words: Sandra Kaji-O'Grady, Naomi Stead
Images: Daniel McCullough/Unsplash

Issue

Architecture Australia, July 2018

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